I said I would write this review. The review must thus be written. How does one write a review of a book one respects and cares deeply about, when one knows nothing of writing reviews? It is overwhelming to begin. I begin with utmost chagrin. Now I am rhyming. Rhyming has no place in a serious book review. And yet I hope it to be serious. Except that I am not a serious person. Serious is something I perhaps shall never be, except in tiny bubbles of the space between the times when I am ridiculous.
I am ridiculous most of the time. The rest of the time I am melancholy. Or perhaps stern. Or perhaps soft and loving and laughing. In the end I am everything. And everything is the equivalent of nothing, in terms of its vastness and lack of specificity, and therefore meaningless, unless we ourselves give it meaning. Meaning comes through finding beauty. And what is beauty? The perfect synthesis of contrasts, to show a pleasing or admirable balance and alignment with nature, in all its chaos and symmetry. The cultivating of bright within the dark. But what has the book review to do with me? I am one person who read the book, and presents it here now. I filter it through my own reality.
The Glass Castle came into my life suddenly and then repeatedly via the voice of my mother. I love my mother; she is a bit crazy, but in a good way. Of course all good-crazy people are crazy in a good way. She is an artist and a musician, is my mother, though not by profession. By profession she was a teacher. Her father said “Get a serious profession.” But not in those words. Her father was Dutch, a Groninger, as was her mother. My mother loved her father. He was a mathematician, a good man, a kind man, a serious man except when he was laughing, and even then there was some knowing irony to the laughter.
Back to The Glass Castle. You see how I can go ’round and ’round heading nowhere, when I have decided I must go somewhere in particular. Help, I need an editor. My only editor at the moment is an obsession for words, holding a glass of wine. Perhaps this is too honest for good taste. But it tastes good.
My mom mentioned The Glass Castle every time we spoke, for some long length of time, perhaps a year or more. It was her book-club pick, and she was going to present it. She wanted me to read it. She said it was one of those books that exemplifies the motto, “what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.” She loves to promote worthy books. I resisted the book for a long time, as I resist any book she obsessively promotes. From what she’d said I understood it to be a memoir of a difficult childhood. I have a hard time reading about difficult childhoods. In my childhood I read so many books about difficult childhoods (mostly recommended by my mom) that, although my own childhood was relatively idyllic, I sometimes imagined it was difficult.
In my adolescence I was very attracted to people with difficult childhoods. I had some interesting and difficult experiences as a result, which helped me grow into who I am today. I would never have done it differently. Quite simply, because I couldn’t have. None of us can do differently than as we do right here, now, in this moment. (Of course, we can do something different in the very next moment, however.) And every moment of the past was the same in that way. That’s how we ended up where we are today. I still ache when I read a book about a difficult childhood. I rage and wail inside at the injustice of it all, and then feel useless and dull. The amount of fixing the world seems to need feels overwhelming and I want to escape.
What am I doing here now. To whom am I writing? It’s not real, the writing is not me, this is not true. This is not my voice. Or is it? And which one? No matter. I should be able to write the review in less than a few hundred words. A single page. Cut to the chase. Preferably without clichés.
I did finally read The Glass Castle, and I loved the book. I cried at parts. This part in particular: Jeannette Walls, the future author, huddles in the back of a moving truck with the household furniture and her three young siblings, shut in for a journey of 14 hours across the country; no food, no water, no seats, no seatbelts, no bathroom breaks, no heat, no light. In the dark, careening down the highway. I can’t bear it. The doors suddenly bang open, not having been properly locked; the children are nearly sucked out into the blackness of the highway at night. Jeannette, a six-year-old girl, holds on to her baby sister, even as she herself clings on for dear life. She promised she would always take care of her, the minute her mother placed this tiny baby in Jeannette’s five-and-a-half-year-old arms, on their way home from the hospital after the birth.
The author matter-of-factly does not wallow or dwell in the blackness of it all. But knowing a bit about babies, I can all too easily imagine, and feel, the details that are not said. I imagine the hunger and desperate confusion of the baby, handed off so easily and carelessly by her mother, who sits warm in the cab of the moving truck, out of earshot of the baby’s screams; I could easily imagine the frustrated, cold, uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, desperately needing-to-pee helplessness of Jeannette and her siblings.
How could any parents do this to their children, any compassionate reader will wonder, with deep anguish. But in the context of story the parents are not portrayed as evil; rather, they are portrayed as the products of their own childhoods. They are much like children themselves, in their relative ignorance and lack of inherent sense of responsibility. Rex Walls, the father, came from a very disturbed, abusive family, immersed in poverty, while Rose Mary, the mother, came from a wealthy household, but hindered by strict rules and an importance placed on appearances rather than integrity. Rex in particular far exceeded his roots, in terms of his brilliance and vibrant energy and the unconditional love he was able to give his children, in spite of his gripping addiction to alcohol.
Another disturbing childhood scene is near the opening of the book, when three-year-old Jeannette’s dress catches fire while she tries to cook food for herself. The mother, who, interestingly, never touches a single drop of alcohol and is religious, is too busy making art to bother making meals for the children. She says why make a meal that will disappear in 15 minutes, when a piece of art could last forever. As a person who regularly chooses to make time for creative endeavours rather than cook and clean all day (though I was not always that way), I can relate to the idea of not always spending a lot of time on meals, but not providing meals to a three-year-old, and suggesting she cook hot dogs herself (without supervision!), is taking it to a radical and ridiculous extreme. Then, just when tiny Jeannette finally feels content and well-cared for in the hospital, where it is clean and quiet with the nurses looking after her in the burn ward, her anti-establishment parents break her out again, and the wild adventure in anarchy and poverty continues.
There is another I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening scene in which Jeannette, as a teenager, is nearly sexually assaulted by a drunken man at a motel bar, due to her desperately alcoholic father bringing her along as a distraction and decoy while he swindles another drunkard at billiards, in order to make more money to drink (he had already used up the grocery money). He allows the man to go escort her to his room. The love-starved girl goes with him. The author admits, objectively, her desire to be admired and given attention, a common foible among young girls-becoming-women and one that got me in a fair bit of trouble in my own life. I didn’t want to read through this scene, afraid for the outcome. But she manages to escape at the critical moment. How? By exposing her old burn scars, she creates “a gap in the fence.” She escapes while the antagonist hesitates in confusion. Pale golden blue.
We never see the protagonist break. I think that is why I loved this book. We see this warrior girl in situation after situation that seems intolerably “unfair,” or life-threateningly challenging, but she somehow comes through each one more plucky than ever. She does not succumb to the option of “playing the victim.”
I admire this. And what I admire more is that the author acknowledges, through subtle scene choices in her storytelling, some of them laced with deep affection and beauty, others threaded with harsh disillusionment, that her parents cultivated this trait in her — this hard-won ability to believe she could deal with anything that life (including her parents) tossed her way. (“I knew you could handle yourself,” says her father, when she tells him what happened at the bar-motel, during the situation he coerced her into with the promise of money to feed herself and her siblings. “‘It was like that time I threw you into the sulphur spring to teach you to swim,’ he said. ‘You might have been convinced you were going to drown, but I knew you’d do just fine.’”)
The parents were neglectful and self-centred to a dangerous extreme, but they were not, at least as portrayed by the author, verbally or physically abusive to the children. And somehow, their attitude, or actions, or unconventional belief in their children’s abilities to fend for themselves instilled a confidence, self-respect and survival instinct in young Jeannette that would bring her to the top of any mountain she attempted to climb.
This girl, this kind and motherly and brilliant and wildly responsible young girl, would overcome all obstacles and extreme poverty, together with her siblings, and become a highly successful journalist in New York City (wonderfully, for those of us readers who are also writers, or who are would-be writers, the end of the book touches on the main steps of that path); a family-centric woman (notably with no children of her own; but compassionately taking on her aging, homeless mother as a dependant, after her father dies) and a New York Times best-selling author, with deep and generation-changing integrity. That’s what I loved most about this book. I see the author as a true love-warrior, a shining example of how beauty and integrity and meaning, and yes, even wild success, can grow from a turbulent past.
The book itself is a gorgeous example of how a memoir can be written in a way that is truthful but also compassionate. And, okay — as the New York Times reviewers say — the prose itself is not high art. It chooses function over form. But in terms of sketching characters with brutal honesty yet deep love and compassion, Jeannette Walls takes the art of memoir to a spiritual high. She gives us the gift of plain speech, an easy read, and she offers very little judgement or self-conscious analysis; and within in this no-nonsense, almost journalistic-style medium, the story’s own powerfully forgiving and understanding spirit shines all the more cleanly through.
It shows us the mud, the lotus and the pale golden blue — that thin light of dawn on the horizon, the edge of brightness bringing hope through the dark.
Find The Glass Castle here on Goodreads, along with links to various booksellers. Read more about the inspiring life of author Jeannette Walls here on Wikipedia (2019), and here on Notable Biographies (2006). Another great article and 6-minute video showing Jeannette Walls reflecting on and at past and present homes, via CBS, July 30, 2017, here. The above screenshot was taken from that article. Post header image: This is the dome of the Royal Greenhouse of Laeken, in Brussels, Belgium — a kind of real glass castle. But here it symbolizes Jeannette Walls’ figurative glass castle, full of light.
Thank you for reading. Sending love from France. ❤︎